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Main Main man Robert Hampson speaks about Main circa 1997

Are you working on any Main projects at the moment?

I’m working on the Main Active Sound System which started off because after Scott left last summer (96) I had a few commitments on the live front so because I didn’t really have a band to play with I started doing a sound system idea which is based on an old dub sound system from the seventies. I was playing unreleased and remixed stuff and putting it in an almost musique concr░te texture. It seemed to work quite well so I decide to do a one off 12" which goes in a very different area to other Main stuff in the sense that it’s gone back to more of a traditional basis of having the rhythms and the undercurrent but it’s not that traditional.

So you’re moving away from the eerie soundscapes you’ve recorded recently with the Hertz and Firmament series?

No, not at all. It’s all just a way of trying to do something a bit different. I’ll be working on Firmament IV almost straight after finishing the 12" then I’ve got a few other bits lying around that need work on.

How many Firmament instalments are there going to be?

The fourth one is going to be the last one. That’s going to be the final adaptation of that idea then I think I’ll start trying to do something else to keep it all fresh. I think four instalments is enough really.

When’s the 12" going to be released?

I’m not too sure yet. I’ve had to stop working on that to do some remixes but as soon as I finish the remixes I’ll be going straight back to it.

Are those remixes for other artists?

I’m doing one for Bowery Electric who are on the Kranky label in the States. There’s an album just coming out on Beggars Banquet and I don’t know when, but when they’re finished there’s also going to be an EP of remixes and some other stuff I think.

Recently with Hertz and Firmament you seem to have moved away from the very repetitive elements of early Main and Loop, or at least buried them and made them more subtle...

Well I can’t keep making the same record over and over again. Not that I think I ever did. The early days of Main were ideas that I had that I wanted Loop to go into but it didn’t work. That was the way of getting rid of those ideas. I think right from the first Firmament EP it’s been going into more of an area of using different textures and not having the repetition there. The roles have been reversed in the way that all the background noises of the early stuff have gone to the forefront and the forefront noises have gone to the background now. It’s another way of approaching things. I’ve always maintained that Main would go off on many different tangents. I can’t stand bands that find a formula and stick to it forever. I certainly don’t want to do that with Main.

It just gets boring doesn’t it? One of the best examples of a band who progressed from record to record are Wire and you did a cover for the Wire tribute. What’s your favourite Wire album?

154. I’m old enough to remember when it came out and everybody hated it at the time which is unusual considering it’s such a phenomenal record. It was a huge influence on me.

Your cover is one of only three or four on that album that I think worked well.

It’s my favourite Wire track which is actually off Chairs Missing, Used To. We completely and utterly destroyed it. I do find a lot of versions on that album are blatant straight cover versions which I think is a bit pointless. The thing was we had a version of this track which we were going to put on a covers EP very early on in the Main days.

Who else did you cover?

It was an old Krautrock band called Cluster. It was Im Zu by Cluster and the Wire track which we actually recorded. We were tossing a few ideas around as to what else we were going to cover but it never really got off the ground. We actually did the Cluster track and the Wire track so when the guy who runs Wire Mail Order asked us to do the compilation I said, "We’ve already done a version. What I’ll do is completely tear it apart and redo it." We kept a few of the bits that appeared in the original version but we updated it.

And you did an album (Orr / Parallel Series) with Bruce Gilbert which I thought was excellent.

That was a long time coming. Even the sleeve notes are wrong because we actually recorded it almost five years ago.

Does that make it the oldest collaboration you’ve done with anyone outside of Main?

Yes, as far as I remember I actually did that not long after Loop finished. I think that was the first official recording I’d done after Loop although we’d done demos for Main.

Why did it take so long to get it released?

I don’t know. I have a few problems with it but they’re only purely personal problems. I was just frustrated that it took so long to finally see the light of day because when it came out it was like archive material really. I would’ve liked to have had the chance to update some of it and make it more relevant to the time frame it came out in.

The funny thing is it hasn’t dated.

It has to me but obviously that’s a personal perspective. That was the mindset I was in at the time whereas at a later date I might have been in a completely different one. That’s why it sounds dated to me because it’s more relevant to what I was thinking about in those days rather than the actual time when it saw the light of day. It has got some really good moments and I don’t dislike it at all, I just find it a bit unusual. That’s probably me being fussy.

Things tend to be a bit unusual where Bruce Gilbert is involved.

I loved working with Bruce so hopefully one day we’ll get together again. I’ve been good friends with Bruce for years and hopefully one day we can do another project.

One of the interesting things from a Bruce Gilbert perspective is that Orr sounds more like Ab Ovo than any of the other things he’s done.

Yeah, I think so too actually. You can never really tell where Bruce is going to go and that’s what’s so nice about being involved with him. It’s like with all the old Dome stuff, it’s kind of strange because you never knew where it was going to go at the time. I think he still very much approaches music in that way. He can do something that’s very spur of the moment, which is really the way I work as well, but I think his work is a bit more of an extreme because he can record very quickly whereas I record painfully slowly. I like to stretch things out of a certain time period so that things can evolve and not be so instant. The way it worked was really exciting because I had actually adapted to his way of working very quickly because we did literally record it in three days. Then it was torn apart and put back together again.

All the sounds were generated through guitars which is pretty much how Main works 90% of the time isn’t it?

Absolutely, yeah.

What do you do to the guitars to get the sounds you make?

It’s very hard to describe. I think if people see what we do live when we’ve played live then they get a bit more of a gist. It’s just a way of approaching it as something else apart from this conventional piece of wood with six steel strings stretched across it. It’s approached in a similar way that a lot of the electroacoustic artists approach sound in the way that that they use very conventional things but through the art of not actually playing them conventionally or just torturing them to death with processing they get completely different unheard of timbres from the object that they’re fiddling about with. If I tried to put it into words it would sound very crass. Anything can happen really.

You can get a great sound by just letting a guitar feed back on top of an amp especially if you use a good open tuning.

I find that quite a conventional way of doing something. Every time we pick something up we try to look at it in a very different way. That can be what takes the time. You can set something up and think, "This is a great sound but we’ve already done this." You have to move away from it if it sounds like something else. With Firmament III the funny thing was that nearly all the guitars that are on that record, and there aren’t many because we went completely against everything and hardly used any guitars on that piece of music, all the guitar sounds had been generated from pretty much our first recording sessions at the same time we were recording the Hydra and Calm EP’s. We went right back to the start and used all the bits we never used in the first place and completely changed the context. It worked quite well, which is quite interesting.

Do you think you’ll ever go back to the more repetitious avant rock sound you had with Hydra and Calm?

No, that all finished with Motion Pool. Motion Pool was the epitaph to it all. It was very deliberate: the first few tracks were the residue of what we were doing and then there was the newer stuff. It was a deliberate mish-mash. All our records are definitive statements of the kind of music I want to hear at the time. I feel I have to produce that because I don’t hear it in other people’s music. The people who I think do things more along the lines that I do are people like Jim O’Rourke and some of that Chicago stuff on Table Of The Elements; if you can imagine Tortoise without any rhythms...

Gastr Del Sol?

People like that are more on a level we’re at, and people like Thomas K¨ner.

What was it like working with Jim O’Rourke on that collaboration Touch released, Indicate?

That was a good experience, a nice record to make. It was a long time ago but as far as I can remember I think there’s only a two minute segment that’s actually got guitars on it. The rest of it is field recordings and suchlike. It was refreshing: the first thing we did when we met was agree that we were both known for working with guitars so lets throw the guitars out the window and do something else. We both had portable DAT players and we both went round all different areas and made different recordings. We did stuff at home as well. It was like a modern tape piece really. It was concocted and manipulated and we made up segments and stuck them together to compile the album. We used field recordings in the broadest sense of the term: natural ambient sounds, for want of a better term, as opposed to wistful synthesisers and what have you.

To what degree do you improvise when you make Main music?

The whole recording process is based on improvisation. It’s harder now I’m on my own so the working process has mutated which will definitely have an effect on what comes out. The old way of working when it was myself and Scott was that we would turn on the tape machine and create sounds we wanted to hear and it was a basic process of improvising around a certain segment and then never really saying we were finished. We could never really declare a Main piece finished because that’s not the way it’s put together. We would get enough material that we thought was good enough and put it through the treadmill of mixing and then we’d improvise on that as well in the way that it was mixed or constructed. I hope it’ll still have that element of improvisation but it was also a process of subtraction because most of it would be very full so it was often a process of taking things away rather than adding to it. It would be that we’d find pieces that would naturally accentuate other pieces. Even the running order would deliberate itself.

I read that you’re now working with a CD ROM set up.

That’s for live. That’s basically the sound system stuff. I’ve used remixes, out-takes and unreleased material and constructed four CD ROM’s and when I play I do a live improvisation of mixing the four CD ROM’s so it’s like a way of DJ-ing but making a performance out of it.

So it’s a little bit like what Bruce Gilbert does but mutating your own material rather than other people’s?

Possibly. I’ve never actually heard him DJ funnily enough. He plays other people’s stuff.

He generally doesn’t know what he’s playing beforehand and speeds it up, slows it down and loops it.

Whereas I know what’s there but it’s never the same twice. I often take a sampler with me and various other gadgets. It depends what sort of mood I’m in. I’ve always made music that way with Main. We’d just turn up and see what happened really. If you sit there and concoct too many plans inevitably something will go wrong somewhere so it’s better not to have too many preconceptions about it. Hopefully I’m going to start doing a few more shows like that and also probably in the future I’ll try to get a live operating unit going again because I do miss playing live. I’ve always found it quite exciting. I’d actually like to do a set of live records sometime, like another Hertz but based on live performance every time and use unusual venues and try to do a specific recording for a specific venue. That’s just one of the billion and one other ideas I have but never get around to doing.

Main live shows seem to be quite infrequent.

We’ve only ever done about six shows here but we used to play a hell of a lot in Holland and Belgium because there was a lot more demand for us to go to Europe than there was in our own country. It’s weird because now everybody’s doing similar things to what we were doing five years ago and everybody’s going mental for it but at the time we couldn’t get a gig even if we paid for it ourselves, which is what we did most of the time. A lot of the shows we did in London we set up ourselves because promoters just weren’t interested. We’d try to pick unusual places to play and get a good bill together and try to get a good bill together and we’d always end up losing loads of money so that’s why we didn’t do it very often.

Why did Scott leave?

We played a gig and afterwards he just turned round and said he didn’t want to do it anymore. I don’t think he’d lost interest but I don’t entirely know his reasons for leaving. It was very amicable. His heart just didn’t seem to be in it anymore and apart from doing it for the sake of doing it, which is something neither of us would ever do... I’ve never done anything for the sake of doing it. With Loop I lost the impetus to do it so instead of running the same old treadmill I decided to split the band and I would do the same with Main in the sense that if your heart and true belief is not behind something then I think it would be very evident in the music.

Do you feel you stopped Loop at your peak?

Yeah, I know it was not liked at the time.

It was liked by me! I thought A Gilded Eternity was your best album.

I think it was the best record we did, purely for selfish personal reasons. Maybe people did want us to keep making the same record over and over again. I think we made three very different records. I don’t think they sounded anything like any other bands.

Is Scott going to do anything else musically?

Not as far as I’m aware. He got a normal job at The Economist. I imagine he probably will but whether he’ll just do it for his own amusement I don’t know. Next time I see him I’ll ask him.

Is Main more than entertainment?

Yes, Main can be a way of life. I very much like people to make up their own minds about what they want to take and use from music. I like to think Main can be appreciated on very different levels at any one given time. It’s very much like a map for me and it’s interesting so I hope it’s interesting for other people. With the Hertz series for example it’s like you could map different ways of going around very similar things. The whole point about Hertz was that you would hear one sound and then maybe two EP’s later you’d hear the same sound in a completely different context. It’s about different ways of approaching the way that you would listen to something. I’d like to say it’s more important than just background music or coffee table music that you put on when your mates are round. That’s not to say you should sit in a dark corner in a dark room by your dark self listening to dark ambient music. I have a keen sense of humour and I don’t take myself too seriously but I take the music very seriously. I also have to have fun and enjoy it. I’m not one of those people who embellish it as some dark gloomy project that shrouds my whole life and casts doom and gloom as far as the arm of man can reach! With Loop there was a lot more contact with the audience that was buying that material so you understood the feedback a lot more whereas now I could say I’m an isolationist in the truest sense of the word because I don’t really get much feedback. This is the third interview I’ve done with a smaller independent music magazine whereas with Loop we were doing stuff all the time. I’ve met a few people who’ve said they find us almost unapproachable because they don’t know what to say. I have to question that and ask myself if I give the impression that I’m a completely unapproachable person.

Something I found initially was that it was difficult to approach in terms of writing a review because I was used to writing about more conventional rock orientated music.

I think you have to sit down and think about Main in the sense that you can’t just stick it on willy nilly as background music.

I think one of the main impressions I get is that it really fucks with perceptions of scale.

Oh yeah, that’s the whole thing, time and space: certainly with the Hertz series and Firmament II and III. It’s a crummy and simplistic way of approaching it but my analogy of it all was to tell people it was like walking through a huge abandoned house or mansion with a walkman on and every different room symbolised the changes in the music in the way that the pace of the music would change with very sharp edits. It was an easy and quick way to describe what was going through my mind at the time of making it. There were these very rapid changes of sense of space and time and I think it worked. There are always things I listen to and think, "Oh god if I had the chance to do that again," but I have got the chance to do that again because I’ve got the chance to make another record so I’ll do it differently and that’s the whole approach really. I don’t listen to Main music once it’s finished. After I listen to the test pressing I never listen to that piece ever again.

How do you feel about copyright? What would you do if someone sampled part of a Main record to make another record?

I’d sue them if I found out about it and it was a definite sample and it was a considerable section. I don’t like sampling at the best of times. We use samplers but we use them purely to sample our own material and I find sampling is just too easy. I get fed up with listening to music that’s derived from other people’s music. There’s such an abundance of music nowadays because it’s almost too easy to make. I think people’s imaginations tend to be lacking in the creative department.

How about if someone did it live? Say mixing Main sounds with other sounds.

I don’t know. It’s finding out about these things isn’t it? I suppose there are things like plunderphonics which I find really funny.

When an ex-girlfriend of mine went back to Italy she gave me her old stereo so I have two CD players and I’ve found that sometimes two CD’s sound really good played at the same time. I thought some Main stuff might be good. So far the best things I’ve tried are two copies of Panasonic’s Kulma played out of sync and Vakio and Ab Ovo together.

When I DJ-ed I’d sometimes play up to four CD’s at the same time and just mixed those. That’s what I used to do when I DJ-ed in so-called chill out rooms but you’d always get someone coming up and going, "Got any Aphex Twin?" and it’d just be like, "Sorry mate but I think you’re missing the point." My DJ-ing career was very short lived because I just got fed up with people’s narrow mindedness. I was very surprised at how conservative people’s tastes actually were. I was playing a lot of older stuff and more underground stuff and I genuinely thought people would want to listen to this but invariably they’d come up and ask for the Orb or the Aphex Twin.

People just want to hear the same old records all the time.

I’m now finding that with drum’n’bass. I don’t really go to clubs and I’m not the hugest fan of drum’n’bass on the planet but I do like some of the weirder stuff; things like Source Direct that you couldn’t conceivably dance to if you tried because it’s so fucked up and cut up that you can’t get any sense of rhythm out of it. It’s basically like a modern equivalent of musique concr░te, like a huge slab of cut ups. When you do get to these places and hear it people are still playing the same stuff and it’s always the more conservative stuff like Goldie or Peshay. I feel the "indie scene" or whatever it wants to call itself these days has really lost its way trying to incorporate all these different styles. Everybody’s wandering about like lost sheep in a field because one minute it’s hip hop, the next it’s trip hop, then it’s jungle, then drum’n’bass and then some other mutation of something. It’s great that people can be so eclectic in their tastes but I just find that things get a little watered down after a while and the bands that really did these things a lot better and a lot harder get forgotten and you get these watered down versions. I think they’re all so desperate to jump on the latest bandwagon and I think that people should just kick back and develop an individual style instead of switching on to what’s hip at the moment. Maybe it will all slow down again. I hope so because I find it all a bit unchallenging at the moment. People need to find their feet before they dive into the quagmire so to speak.

The music you make certainly backs up those opinions because it’s very individual and ever more challenging. Firmament III is arguably your most challenging release to date.

t’s kind of weird because I find that record really quite mellow and everybody else is going, "Oh god!" I don’t like the term ambient and I don’t like being tagged ambient but if that’s the general consensus and that’s what people want to term it as then fair enough. A lot of preconceptions have been built up around Main because I don’t think people know how to take us half the time. Maybe it’s because our records jump from one thing to another, but you can always tell one of our records. I think we have a signature and that’s what I’m trying to explain, is that people should find a signature instead of just throwing all caution to the wind. Bands like Ocean Colour Scene and Blur are funny. I remember them from Loop times when they were all these terribly twee little baggy bands with all these silly druggy songs they did and it was so pathetic.

Yeah, they’re just chancer twerps who jump on any bandwagon that’s rolling by. They’ll whore themselves to anything hip to get a slice of the pie.

Now look at them. They’re the supposed forerunners of British music! I find it all quite funny but I’ve got an obtuse sense of humour.

It’s funny just so long as you don’t have to listen to their appallingly mediocre music.

That’s the trouble with stuff charting but these days you don’t have to sell nearly so many records to get in the charts as you used to. That’s why all this stuff is breaking through. If I ever heard Oasis again I think I’d probably explode on the spot. I can’t stand it. I have a very hefty passion for a lot of sixties guitar music.

But Oasis and their crummy spawn just water it down and plagiarise it very badly.

That’s what I don’t understand. People get away with plagiarising so much these days and nobody seems to care about it. I find that really strange. I don’t have a huge circle of friends but I actually don’t know anybody who likes them. Fair enough, I’m approaching my mid thirties so I’m getting old.

Nobody go near this man with an Oasis record, you hear?!

Since this interview, Main has left Beggars Banquet after releasing a live disc, entitled Deliquescence, and Firmament IV. Robert has since released a trio of beat orientated cuts under the name Chasm on a split 12" with Bannlust on the Fat Cat label.

Originally appeared at Cracked Machine
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